First published by Little White Lies
Diary Day 4 – Sunday, 27th August
Today saw FrightFesters agonising over Andy Nyman’s torturous Quiz From Hell, and then being mildly disappointed by a showcase of ten international horror shorts. From the latter the best were probably the hilarious fake trailer Demonitron: The 6th Dimension (spoilt only by ear-shredding overamplification) and João Alves’ animated western Bats in the Belfry; other highlights like Brutal Relax, Banana Motherf**ker and Little Munchkin involved great gags, although they were all let down by being overplayed and overextended. It was, however, an excellent day for features, including three of the weekend’s very best (The Innkeepers, Kill List and Detention).
The Divide (preview)
As New York’s skyline comes under aerial bombardment, we see the initial destruction reflected in the teary eye of onlooker Eva (Lauren German), before she flees in panic with other residents from her luxury apartment building. Nine of them (Eva included) make it into the reinforced basement below before the full force of the nuclear strike hits above – yet that frantic dash downstairs to escape certain death is also a descent into the darkest crypts of the human soul, where desperation, greed and madness reign.
Xavier Gens‘ third feature (following Frontier(s) and Hitman) may begin with a bang before narrowing its focus to a small band of survivors, but it hardly ends with a whimper – for what unfolds over time in the claustrophobic confines of the basement is no less poisonously combustible than the holocaust with which the film opens.
“Let there be light!”, declares the building’s superintendent Mickey (Michael Biehn) as he starts up the basement generator, immediately letting his ‘guests’ know who is going to be God in this new underground kingdom. Having only reluctantly admitted the other eight to his subterranean domain, Mickey proves even more grudging with water, food and general grace – and when asked what his problem is, he points to each of them in turn, saying, “It’s you! – and you! – and you!” Yet soon the rest will come to share his Sartrean view that hell is other people – for while Mickey may at first seem to represent the lowest common denominator of callous self-interest and top-dog megalomania, once he has been toppled from his throne the resulting vacuum of power is quickly filled by far, far worse.
Like a post-nuclear Lord of the Flies, Gens’ bleak psychodrama strips the lofty edifices of human civilisation down to their barest foundations, exposing the ugliness and rot that lie within. With food supplies dwindling, relationships breaking down and radiation sickness creeping in, these ordinary, outwardly decent characters are reduced to acts of horrific license and savagery, until no-one can come out looking clean or pretty – but then, barely anyone gets out at all.
Recently The Road and (especially) Carriers have treated similar themes of survival in extremis, but with its committed performances, nuanced (and pleasingly flashback-free) characterisation, and constantly shifting ensemble dynamics, The Divide is an uncompromising, unapologetically unpleasant addition to the post-apocalyptic subgenre. It invites us, along with Eva, to bear witness to the end of everything that we take for granted and hold dear, with all sentiment and hope forever locked out.
The Innkeepers (UK premiere)
“Look closely, I missed it the first time. It’s gonna blow your mind. Really heavy.”
Ghost geek, porn enthusiast and amateur web designer Luke (Pat Healy) is showing his co-worker Claire (Sara Paxton) an on-line clip of a haunting, in which the camera stays fixed and focused on an equally immobile rocking chair in a room, until – very suddenly – a face in ghoul make-up appears howling in the foreground. Claire jumps alright (as we do) at this old jack-in-a-box gag, and she can only breathe properly again after resorting to her inhaler.
As this sequence amply demonstrates, saying ‘boo!’ at the right moment is all it takes to get an easy scare – but with The Innkeepers, Ti West’s third feature to screen at FrightFest after The Roost and The House of the Devil, once again the indie writer/director instils fear in his viewers via a harder (but far more rewarding) route. Taking his time to acquaint us with layered, believable (and amusingly gawky) characters, and carefully introducing us to the atmosphere of his locations, West reels us slowly in to the creepiness of his human drama and, instead of following the usual Hollywood horror template of a cheap jumpshock every few minutes, he allows a genuine sense of dread, rooted in the ambiguous relationship between character and circumstance, to build in its own time.
Aimless Claire and lovesick Luke are taking turns manning the desk of the old Yankee Pedlar Inn (in fact a real Connecticut hotel in which West and his crew stayed while filming The House of the Devil) in its final weekend before closure – and with time to kill and very few guests, they are also trying to record contact (for Luke’s new website) with the ghosts said to haunt its halls, including legendary suicide bride Madeline O’Malley. Warned by washed-up actress-turned-psychic Leanne Reese-Jones (Kelly McGillis) not to go into the basement where O’Malley’s corpse had allegedly been stored many decades earlier, Claire has several eerie experiences while alone that inevitably draw her to the forbidden place where fate and fright await.
As the steadicam prowls the hotel’s empty corridors, as certain room numbers become invested with significance, as premonitions are had and baths are bloodied, and as the camera, in the final sequence, tracks towards old black-and white photos framed on the wall, it is impossible not to think of that classic of hotel horror, The Shining. Yet while, in keeping with the film’s reduced budget, the Yankee Pedlar Inn represents decidedly lower-rent accommodation than the expansive opulence of Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel, and while The Innkeepers ends up traveling down rather different narrative hallways, nonetheless West stands comparison to Kubrick in his absolute mastery of filmmaking. Keeping his camera one step ahead of his characters and focusing more on their reactions than on what they actually see, West lets the different details of his story accumulate suggestively, never fully resolving the question of whether we are watching a psychodrama or a ‘real’ ghost story. Either way, the results are genuinely haunting.
The Innkeepers does not pretend to be anything more than a genre flick, but it has been made, like all of West’s films, with such consummate craft that it stands out as one of FrightFest’s finest.
Saint (UK premiere)
Hallowe’en may be the most obvious calendar date for the horrific to happen, but in fact four years before John Carpenter celebrated All Hallows’ Eve as the perfect night for maniacs to murder co-eds, Bob Clark’s proto-slasher Black Christmas (1974) had instead established Yuletide as the season to be scary. Since then, there have been enough ‘Santa slashers’ (Christmas Evil, the Silent Night, Deadly Night franchise, Santa’s Slay, even The Nightmare Before Christmas) to constitute a recognised sub-subgenre, and as recently as 2010, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010) put a distinctively Finnish spin on the notion that the myth of Saint Nick might have monstrous underpinnings.
All this is a problem for Saint, the latest genre excursion by Holland’s most commercially successful director Dick Maas (The Lift, Amsterdamned, Flodder) – for while it is fun enough to see a revenant Saint Nicholas and his army of zombified Black Peters pitted against a modern-day South Amsterdam college kid (Egbert-Jan Weeber), the only thing that really seems original here is the local colour (e.g. the amusingly understated notion that the victims of Nicholas’ slashing spree are not just non-virgins, but also non-believers, inevitably making potential targets of most of Amsterdam’s populace). Maas has thoroughly rewritten the book on ‘Sinterklaas’, transforming him from the historical fourth-century saint of Myra into a fifteenth-century renegade bishop and buccaneer whom, in the film’s prologue, vengeful Dutch villagers are seen burning to death in his own frigate on 5th December,, 1492 – only for him to return, whenever the anniversary of his passing coincides with a full moon, for some child abduction, mayhem and mass murder.
Yet if you take away the distinctly Northern (and Central) European observance of Saint Nicholas’ Eve, as well as the use of key Amsterdam sites for surreal clashes of old and new, what remains, at least in the film’s first half, is a rather conventional supernatural slasher which wears its debt to Carpenter’s Halloween on its sleeve, with cat-and-mouse set-pieces that, though decidedly Christmas-flavoured, are entirely by numbers. In its second half Saint morphs into something more like an action film, with police cars chasing Nicholas as he dashes spectacularly on horseback along the angular gables over Amsterdam – and in its final scenes it becomes a sort of conspiracy tale, with Amsterdam’s political class engineering a cover-up to keep the truth about Nicholas’ once-in-a-generation outrages from the public consciousness.
Whether all these elements stack up into a compelling, or even interesting, whole is questionable, but they make for a strange chimney-top view of contemporary Holland, caught somewhere between myth and reality. It is hardly a coincidence that Nicholas’ demise is expressly placed in the same year as the New World is discovered – yet even if American influence conspicuously pervades Maas’ film (much as a group of American visitors is shown being guided through Amsterdam’s more gaudily touristic locations), that is not enough to stop the occasional return from the dead of an older, more homegrown sensibility.
Kill List (UK premiere)
If you have seen Ben Wheatley’s bracing feature debut Down Terrace (2009), then you will probably spend the first half hour or so of his follow-up Kill List congratulating yourself for being so ahead of the game. After all, the film seemingly follows a similar pattern, using a mode of handheld, ‘kitchen sink’ realism to blend domestic English mundanity with more genre-based criminality to darkly comic effect. It opens with pill-popping Gulf War veteran Jay (Neil Maskell) being lambasted (in the kitchen, naturally) by wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) for his eight months of unemployment, for the phantom illnesses and insulated torpor that are “all in [his] fucking head”, and for his all-round uselessness, even as their seven-year-old son Sam (Harry Simpson) plays within earshot. “Wake up, Jay!”, Shel shouts, in a line that will re-echo through the film.
Jay’s old war buddy Gal (Michael Smiley) comes over for dinner with new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer), and invites Jay to come working with him again on the road, despite veiled references to problems on their last job together in Kiev. Fiona may be told that Jay works in commercial sales, but we soon see that Gal and Jay are professional hitmen, newly contracted (in blood) by a mysterious Client (Struan Roger) to work through a list of three targets. So far, so Down Terrace, in which Smiley had already been seen playing a killer for hire – but from the moment that we see Fiona secretly etch a strange sigil into the back of her hosts’ bathroom mirror, Jay is set to descend into a shadowy scenario that constitutes one of the most disorienting, paranoia-tinged experiences to have graced the screens of British horror since Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (which is duly referenced). For Jay, too, is a marked man, whose past traumas and barely suppressed anger have engendered a kill list of their own.
The result is a film that always is – or at least seems – grounded in naturalism, but whose twisted narrative course defies all predictability, even if in retrospect even the most casually throwaway of lines and gestures contribute to the overall sense in hauntingly creepy ways. The Client refers to his business as ‘reconstruction’, and even if this is a task to which the boorishly violent Jay seems ill-suited, Wheatley trusts viewers to rise to the demands of piecing his Lynchian enigmas back together without ever insulting our intrepretative acumen with unnecessary exposition or some sort of last-minute solution in recap. Wheatley’s handling of ambiguity and of his protagonist’s increasingly confused perspective make Kill List something very special indeed – a funny, unnerving and deeply affecting journey into the heart of masculinity and madness, playing and replaying in your head long after its devastating final image has faded from the screen. If you like your horror intelligent, original and uncomfortable, Wheatley’s film more than merits its place at the very top of your list. Unquestionably one of FrightFest’s best.
Detention (UK premiere)
“This is pretty much my entire bank account on screen,” is how Joseph Kahn introduced his latest feature Detention to insomniac FrightFesters. Kahn has been successfully directing music videos over the last two decades for the likes of Lady GaGa, Eminem and Britney Spears, but if his only other feature film, the “motorcycle movie” Torque (2004), was a studio-produced piece of high-octane (if endearingly self-mocking) trash drawn from someone else’s screenplay, Detention is a self-financed labour of love over which Kahn had complete creative control (and took three years to write). The results simply have to be seen (and heard) to be believed.
There is seemingly no genre that the angst and ecstasy of the adolescent’s growing pains cannot inhabit – yet part of the genius (and I don’t use that word lightly) of Detention is to mash up all these different genres into a postmodern, protean plot that simply defies summary. Suffice it to say that there is the dark comic satire (and suicidal tendencies) of Heathers, the bloody body count (and self-referentiality) of a post-Scream slasher, the Saturday group detention of The Breakfast Club, the intergenerational body swapping of Freaky Friday, the apocalyptic prescience of Donnie Darko, the time travel of Back to the Future, as well as subplots involving a grizzly bear abducted by aliens and a school bully transforming into The Fly (complete with wings and acidic vomit).
Kahn weaves these elements into a playful bubblegum pastiche, full of razorsharp one-liners, pop-culture parodies, bizarre digressions and flagrant breaches of the fourth wall, all tinged with a voguish nostalgia (for 1992!) because, as one character so absurdly puts it, “the Nineties are the new Eighties.” And so Detention nails the teenagers of today – piecing together their identity from an infinity of retro-cultural models no further away than a mouse click, and yet still struggling, as ever, to fit in, find themselves (and the guy or girl of their dreams), and get an A – if not save the world.
With every second of the film seeming to contain as many ideas as frames, this is one of the most hyperactive, desultorily attention-demanding films ever made, guaranteeing endless rewatch value and ensuring a well-deserved cult status. It is also very, very funny, bombarding the viewer with one quotable quip after another. Normally predicting classics is a risky business – but, after traveling into the future in my bear-shaped time machine, I can say with confidence that Detention is a keeper, and that Kahn need not worry much longer about the emptiness of his bank account. It is one of the surprise hits of the festival, and a film whose smart appeal extends far beyond the usual, often narrow expectations of the horror set.